Teaching Social Skills


Why is it important to teach social skills?

According to DSM-V criteria students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) display deficits in:

  • social-emotional reciprocity;
  • non-verbal communication used for social interaction;
  • understanding, developing, and maintaining relationships

Although severity of these deficits varies from student to student, many students with ASD face significant challenges developing and maintaining meaningful relationships with others. This is often not due to a lack of interest in social interactions, but instead a lack of knowledge about how to engage socially. By explicitly teaching social skills, meaningful connections, and ultimately improved quality of life, are supported.

What strategies are available?

  1. Video modeling: the student watches a short video of another student or adult performing the desired skill before practicing the skill themselves. This method works well for students with good imitation skills.
  2. Peer mentors: the student watches a peer demonstrate good social skills in the natural environment, such as the classroom or recess. Peer mentors model, prompt, and praise the targeted social behaviour(s). This method is effective for many students but can be more helpful for students with limited social skills and/or those who are more inclined to interact with adults.
  3. Direct teaching: the student is provided prompting and reinforcement in a small setting, such as a resource room, to teach specific social skills. This method works well for students who have difficulty learning in a group environment, and who are being introduced to a new skill.
  4. Social narratives and social stories: the student reads or listens to a narrative/story written in first person, describing a specific social situation and the desired behaviour of the student. This method works well for students who can follow verbal/visual sequences.
  5. Social skills groups: the student participates in small-group instruction supported by games and activities. This method is appropriate for students who have some prerequisite social skills and who can participate in a small group without substantial support.

What are some considerations to keep in mind when developing a social skills program?   

  • Teach skills that are developmentally appropriate (e.g. turn-taking would be more appropriate to teach to a pre-school student than perspective-taking).
  • Teach skills in an appropriate sequence (i.e. earlier acquired skills should be taught before later acquired skills).
  • Teach skills one-at-a-time. Once a student masters a skill, begin teaching the next skill while monitoring the mastered skill(s).
  • Focus on areas of interest for the student (e.g. if a student is interested in Lego, incorporate these materials into the lesson).
  • Social interactions may cause anxiety. Increase a learner’s confidence by practicing skills daily and ensuring interactions are successful by prompting sufficiently.

What are some examples of skills to teach?

Students who are younger may benefit more from learning pre-requisite skills and basic play skills while older students may benefit from learning more complex social skills, such as having a conversation. Some examples include:

  • Pre-requisite skills (e.g. joint attention, imitation)
  • Play skills (e.g. turn-taking, sharing)
  • Conversation skills (e.g. entering, maintaining, and exiting a conversation)
  • Social understanding skills (e.g. perspective-taking, self-awareness, understanding humour)

What does a good social skills program look like?

Programs will vary widely depending on the age of the student(s) and the resources available within the school. Research shows that the following are indicators of a good social skills program:

  • Peer involvement: peers are included as role models
  • Regularly scheduled: teaching occurs at least once per week for a pre-determined period of time
  • Direct instruction: students are taught specific skills with clear instruction
  • Multiple settings: students are taught and provided feedback on the skill in a variety of settings, (e.g. in a small room, the classroom, the library, and at recess). Generalization to natural environments must occur for skill mastery.


Social Skill Curriculum Resources:

Ellis, J. & Almedia, C. (2014).  Socially savvy: An assessment and curriculum guide for young children.   New York, NY: Different Roads to Learning.

McGinnis, E., & Goldstein, A. P. (2005) Skillstreaming in the elementary school: A guide for teaching prosocial skills. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Model Me Going Places (n.d.) Autism Apps, Autism Software, Autism DVDs. Retrieved August 1, 2018 from www.modelmekids.com/

Winner, M. G. (2008). Think social!: A social thinking curriculum for school-age students. San Jose, CA: Think Social Publishing, Inc.